Iranian-Pakistani standoff could inflame regional tensions

Considering all the domestic and foreign challenges Pakistan currently contends with, the last thing the country needs is a conflict on its border with Iran. But with sectarian tensions running so high throughout the region, such a conflict could well be brewing.

Considering all the domestic and foreign challenges Pakistan currently contends with, the last thing the country needs is a conflict on its border with Iran. But with sectarian tensions running so high throughout the region, such a conflict could well be brewing.

According to the governor of Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan province, Tehran is trying to negotiate the release of four Iranian border guards captured by Islamist militants a month ago and since held in Pakistan. (A fifth guard was captured and summarily executed.) The militants belong to the Jaish al-Adl rebel group, hailing from the Balochi areas of south-eastern Iran but operating from Pakistan’s south-western Balochistan province. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is under pressure to allow his country’s elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to strike at Balochi Islamist militant sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan.

Tehran cannot afford to act so brazenly. The Iranian government is in historic talks to normalise ties with the United States and improve its international standing, and it has every reason to keep these talks on track. However, Tehran cannot sit idly by, hence its recent decision to delegate border control to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Rouhani’s government had been under intense fire from hardliners within the regime (in particular the IRGC) for allegedly conceding too much to Washington even before the abduction of the border guards; now it finds itself under more pressure.

Complicating matters is the consensus within the Iranian regime that regional rival Saudi Arabia is trying to undermine Iranian influence and stability in response to the US-Iranian diplomatic engagement. Tehran is convinced that Jaish al-Adl is among Riyadh’s agents for these goals. Tehran does not know the extent of the alleged involvement, but the fact that the government of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is closely allied with Saudi Arabia reinforces Iranian perceptions.

Tehran knows that Islamabad currently relies more heavily on Riyadh than normal, given that it is experiencing its worst economic crisis ever, so Pakistan is predisposed to oblige Saudi Arabia where it might not ordinarily be so inclined. It is unclear whether the Saudis actually support Jaish al-Adl – or whether Islamabad actually is involved with the group – but all that matters is what Iran believes.

Already on the defensive in the Levant and Iraq, where the Saudis are determined to roll back Iranian/Shiite influence, the Iranians are concerned about the security of their eastern flank in the wake of the NATO drawdown in Afghanistan. From the Iranian point of view, the Saudis, working through their Pakistani allies, will increase support for the Taliban in order to create problems for Iran. Therefore, the Iranians have an incentive to fire a warning shot to the Pakistanis, a shot that could come in the form of a cross-border security operation.

Notably, Pakistan has long been a proxy battleground for Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tehran already is concerned about the growing number of attacks on Shia inside Pakistan, and it believes these attacks come at the behest of Riyadh. So even if the Iranians conclude that the Pakistanis are not directly involved in backing groups like Jaish al-Adl – it is possible that the group finds sanctuary in Pakistan simply because Islamabad’s authority continues to weaken in its western periphery – they would feel all the more compelled to act.

With NATO drawing down its forces, Southwest Asia is already anticipating more violence associated with the Taliban insurgency. Fighting in Iran’s and Pakistan’s Balochi areas could aggravate the situation dramatically. The attacks inside Iran from Pakistani-based groups only raise the stakes. If Iran responds militarily to Jaish al-Adl inside Pakistan, the conflict that had been relegated to Afghanistan and Pakistan could widen.

George Friedman